Universities should feel a stronger sense of urgency and proper registration should be given more priority. “It’s not optional”, according to the Minister Dijkgraaf in the Dutch news show Nieuwsuur. As far as he is concerned, researchers who fail to report their side jobs or funding sources should face disciplinary action. But such measures would have to be taken by the universities themselves – the ministry does not plan to introduce a new legal framework.
Whether or not Dijkgraaf will succeed remains to be seen. The issue has been a subject of debate since 2008, and previous attempts to address it all died on the vine. Last spring, Nieuwsuur reported that, after two years of questions and litigation, the registration of professors’ side jobs and funding sources was still a quagmire. Even former ministers with professorships did not have their records in order, including Ronald Plasterk, one of Dijkgraaf’s predecessors.
Plasterk himself was the first minister to call for a national register in 2008, but it did not materialise. However, universities did agree to publish their professors’ ancillary positions on their own websites.
Money buys influence, proponents of making this information public argue. If a lung doctor is sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer, the public has a right to know, as it can help them weigh certain information.
‘Transparency is the cornerstone of scientific integrity’
In 2009, HOP reported that little progress was being made on the registration of side jobs. Two years later, then state secretary Halbe Zijlstra repeated that ancillary positions should in principle be public record, but an investigation by the magazine De Groene Amsterdammer in 2014 found no real improvements.
Former education minister Jet Bussemaker, who did not report all her ancillary positions herself, as was revealed this spring, refused to set up a national register in 2013 and continuously minimised the problem during her term in office. According to her, things were going fine.
Conflicts of interest
As a result, little action was taken and new issues kept cropping up. About a year ago, both de Volkskrant and Folia published articles (both in Dutch) about the conflicts of interest of professors of tax law and tax economics.
This spring, Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) chair Pieter Duisenberg was unequivocal: “This can’t be allowed to continue. We have to do something about this. Transparency is the cornerstone of scientific integrity, so when you provide your expert opinion as an academic, everyone must be able to verify that you’re doing so independently.”
The universities’ stance has not changed since then, but there are legal and technical questions that need to be addressed, says UNL spokesperson Ruben Puylaert. Privacy issues need to be considered, for instance.
While the registration of ancillary activities does need to improve, a national register “would not necessarily have been our own first solution”, Puylaert says. Among other things, universities are raising awareness among their staff about the importance of reporting side jobs and funding sources.
They might not say so explicitly, but the universities are keen to protect their staff from accusations that could be cast by people scouring public records for suspicious ancillary activities. The higher education institutions would prefer not to make it too easy to search for side jobs. As things currently stand, you have to go to the individual webpages of specific researchers to find their ancillary activities – which might not even be properly recorded, as there seems to be little oversight at the moment.
Although nothing is certain yet, chances are slim that there will be one centralised online register as Dijkgraaf envisions. A more likely outcome is that the universities will launch a home page with links to the universities’ own staff pages.
This home page could also provide instructions on what to report and what not to report. Is it relevant, for instance, that a professor is on the board of their local playground, or is it OK to keep that kind of information private? And does the responsibility for recording funding sources lie with the researcher or the employer?
Whatever happens, it could very well take a year and a half or even two years to get such a website up and running. The next question is whether the current minister – or his successor – will be satisfied with the result. Either way, the topic is unlikely to be taken off the agenda anytime soon.
HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum VU